SHAFAQNA – British special forces are trying to gather intelligence in Iraq, and possibly in Syria as well, on the commanders, and hostage-takers, of the Islamic State (Isis). We don’t know this for sure because of the British government’s refusal to comment on the activities of the SAS or the SBS, its naval equivalent. “We never comment on the disposition of our special forces anywhere in the world and that will remain our policy”, Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, told the BBC last month. This official censorship in practice may be honoured more in the breach than in the observance. However, the government’s attitude towards the reporting of Britain’s role in military operations was reflected in Hammond’s clampdown on the media and the military when he was defence secretary. It is reinforced in a proposal whereby all members of the armed forces – and employees of private companies involved in military contracts – would be required to disclose to Ministry of Defence officials any contact they have had with journalists.
These attempts at censorship come at a time when special forces are playing, and are likely to continue to play, an increasingly important and significant role in conflicts.
Retired general Sir Graeme Lamb, a former director of British special forces, said on Monday the government should now say it is prepared to “rule in” ground forces in dealing with Isis, including sending advisers to assist the Iraqi army.
Lamb was intervening in the growing debate over how to combat Isis after the former prime minister, Tony Blair, said in a BBC interview: “Unless you’re prepared to fight these people on the ground, you may contain them but you won’t defeat them.”
A number of retired US generals have joined in saying that air strikes are not enough and ground forces must be involved. However, conventional troops are unlikely to be deployed, especially after the earlier failures in Iraq – and Afghanistan.
So special forces will play more and more of a role – gathering intelligence by intercepting communications, watching, interrogating, reporting to pilots of RAF aircraft flying reconnaissance missionss, to GCHQ, and to defence chiefs in London.
Unconventional forces require unconventional tactics. In their latest annual Strategic Survey released last week, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) pointed to the diffusion of power in the international system, including strategic actors with no state affiliation.
“The weakness rather than the strength of states” had become “a palpable threat to global order”, it noted.
The IISS survey concluded: “In 2015 the politics of parochialism will persist internationally and geopolitical risk will be managed best by those who understand the detail”.
As nation states become weaker, so, too, does the capability of conventional armed forces. And as “non-state” actors become stronger, you will have to talk to them, as you used to talk to governments.
In an essay on his Faith Foundation website Blair says about Isis: “The problem is not that we’re facing a fringe of crazy people, a sort of weird cult confined to a few fanatics. If it was, we could probably root it out, kill or imprison its leaders, deter its followers and close the doors to new recruits.”
Blair said there was a “spectrum of opinion” that “stretches further into parts of Muslim society”. There were those who would oppose extremism, “but who unfortunately share certain elements of the fanatic’s world view”, he added.
Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff and key negotiator on Northern Ireland, says there are people supporting Isis – Ba’athists, former members of the Iraqi army, for example – with whom you could talk.
Talking to the Sunday Times before his book, Talking to Terrorists : How to End Armed Conflict, is published by Bodley Head on 2 October, he said: “We could say, ‘I know we treated you badly, but these guys don’t represent you. Let’s talk about what could happen.'”
Powell continued: “Isis is not a small movement of middle-class kids like Baader-Meinhof. It’s a big political movement like Eta or the IRA which represents a genuine political strand of grievance.”